It was fifth grade when my daughter decided that she didn’t like school. It was her first year in an intermediate school. In our community, learners go to the same primary school for grades K-4, and then switch to an intermediate school for 5-6 before moving on to middle school (7-8) and high school (9-12). It’s the intermediate school where things tend to change. We have similar challenges in the school district in which I work, where students attend intermediate school in grades 4-5. Both students and parents tend to experience a sense of disillusionment at this level. It’s an age where students are becoming increasingly independent. In many schools, they switch classes for the first time. They’re expected to keep track of assignments and due dates more than they did in the past. They have lockers and study hall and more freedom and more accountability. But at the same time, they’re all still in the same classes. Everyone has math and language arts and science and social studies, just like they did in elementary school. But by fifth grade, the gap between the highest performing kids and the lowest performing kids in the same class can be staggering. My daughter, for example, was reading at a tenth grade level in fifth grade. Though these were the days before the third grade reading guarantee, there were certainly students in her class who were two years below their grade level.
That’s an enormous gap. If we have students reading on a third grade level in the same class with students reading on a 10th grade level, how do we teach to that kind of academic diversity? In my daughter’s fifth grade class, they taught at a fifth grade level. Some students struggled, and I’m assuming that there were intervention strategies in place for them. Most of the students were more-or-less with the class. Some students, my daughter among them, were bored.
In grades 5 and 6, all of her teachers were entirely focused on acquisition of content. They were scared to death of the high stakes end-of year tests. They were worried about the new science test. Students were not performing up to expectations on the math test. And language arts is always the highest priority in elementary school. In every class, the entire focus of the curriculum was on making sure the students could answer as many test questions as possible. They even went as far as “borrowing” time from non-tested subjects, like social studies, to spend more time on test prep in the subjects that “counted.”
If getting students to answer multiple choice questions is the entire focus of your educational philosophy, what’s the best way to accomplish that goal? Direct instruction. Practice. Repeat. If you want students to be able to recognize a word by its definition, or add two fractions together, or list the planets in order by size, this is the most efficient way to get the job done. So there were endless worksheets. There was a lot of copying of definitions out of textbooks. There were word searches and crossword puzzles. Every day in math, they were shown a new kind of problem, the process for solving that kind of problem, and 20 practice problems for homework.
What does this do to the student who comes in already having most of the knowledge? I’m not saying my daughter is a genius. But we did spend a LOT of time in science museums and historical sites and zoos and concert halls. We asked a lot more questions than we answered. We taught our children to love books. We encouraged them to ask questions and work hard to understand the world around them. They didn’t just go into Kindergarten knowing that the poster on the wall listing Pluto as a planet was wrong. They knew why it was wrong, and why scientists changed their thinking about it.
This child can do the worksheets. But she doesn’t see any point in doing them. And when her intrinsic love of learning is diminished by a need to proceed in lock step with the class, she learns to play the school game. Do what you have to do to get the grade, and don’t worry so much about learning. School is now about fulfilling requirements. It’s not fun anymore. After two years of treading water, we pulled her out. She attended an online charter for seventh and eighth grades before returning to the traditional public high school. The online charter wasn’t much better academically: it, too, was focused on test prep. But at least she could work more efficiently, check off the required work, and then spend more time on her passions. She could dive more deeply into topics that interested her, and spend more time where she wanted. She could focus more on visual arts, including several hours of painting every week. For her, learning and school became two separate things. But that worked for her.
My other daughter is taking a different path to the same place. For her, grades 5-8 are being spent in a performing arts middle school. Academically, it’s a very traditional school, with many of the shortcomings I’ve already described. She has certainly learned to play the school game, giving the teachers what they want, without worrying so much about the learning. But she gets to do drama and orchestra in school. So rather than wasting the middle school years, she can focus on the arts. I have no doubt that she will be ready for high school next year when she joins her sister.
High school is a very different animal. The capacity for diversifying academic experiences in high school is much higher than it is in middle school. There are honors and AP classes. There are electives and extracurriculars. There are plenty of opportunities to engage academically, culturally, socially, and athletically. As a Freshman, my daughter took Sophomore English, science, and math. If she runs out of courses to take in a couple years, she’ll enroll in a post-secondary program and earn college credit for high school classes. She’s over the hump now, and she’s much happier about school. But those middle grades were tough.
I can’t help but think that the new academic standards are going to improve the middle grades experience. Both the Common Core standards and the new Ohio standards for science and social studies have an emphasis on increasing academic rigor. That means that we’re finally moving beyond simply remembering and understanding facts. Students will need to analyze, synthesize, and apply their knowledge to new situations. They will have to combine their knowledge from different domains in new ways to create something new. That kind of thinking requires an entirely different approach to teaching and learning. It’s no longer possible to anticipate every kind of problem students will be asked to solve. We’ll need to teach them to think for themselves.
In the process, hopefully we’ll engage those students who have checked out of middle school.
Photo credit: Steven Depolo on Flickr.